'They Want What We Want'
"It's horrifying to be looking at someone who you raised as a small child, who has your DNA, who you love desperately, but who now is a complete stranger to you because of a mental illness," says Pete Earley.
Early is an award-winning investigative journalist and author of the highly-acclaimed, "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness."
He will be the guest speaker at an event sponsored by Linden Lodge Foundation Saturday, Oct. 6, at 7 p.m. at Pine Needles Reception Center. His presentation, "Hopeless No More," will describe his experiences and highlight the successful recovery programs he has visited.
"One day my son was fine, and the next, boom, it was as if I was looking at someone else in his body," he says. "It's a story that can happen to you or someone you love: a son, daughter, even a parent. None of us think we will experience mental illness tomorrow, but you don't have to scratch too deep in our culture to find mental illness in most families."
Several years ago, Earley faced a crisis as his son Michael, a college student, went off his medications and suffered a breakdown.
In "Crazy," he weaves two stories, one is the deeply personal chronicle of his family's journey through the labyrinth of the country's mental health system as they seek treatment for Michael.
The other story is an examination of our nation's mental health system, one that culminates in a 10-month investigation of prisoners in the psychiatric ward of the Miami-Dade County jail.
While writing the book, Earley said he made three discoveries. Mental illnesses can happen to anyone, it rarely is the affected person's fault and our nation's jails and prisons have become our new state asylums.
Fifty years ago, more than half a million Americans were in state hospitals for mental problems. Although the nation's population increased by 66 percent by the year 2000, there are now fewer than 55,600 patients in state mental hospitals. More than 300,000 mentally ill individuals are in jails and prisons with another 500,000 on some form of court-ordered probation, according to Earley's investigation.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that one-in-four Americans over the age of 18 suffer from some sort of diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. Current thinking is that severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression, are exactly that - biological based malfunctions in the brain - or illnesses. They are not the fault of the person who becomes ill.
"We are actually able to help most people who have severe mental illnesses. We're just not doing it," Earley says.
Most people with serious mental illness live successfully in their communities as long as they have access to safe housing, and the appropriate support and treatment. Sometimes, people stop taking their medications or their medications stop working.
In other cases, people have anosognosia, meaning they are unaware of their mental illness, and so do not believe they have an illness and thus do not think they need treatment.
Earley says, "Forty percent of persons with mental illnesses don't think anything is wrong with them. They think you are the one who is delusional. Many, but not all with mental illness, can do extremely well when they get help. Sometimes the people who you think will never recover, do, and those who you think will have an easy time getting better, don't. That's why we should never give up on anyone."
He recently visited LAMP Community Project in Los Angeles, which provides immediate housing linked to wraparound health and social services to homeless individuals living with severe mental illness.
Most of those served face additional challenges such as drug/alcohol addiction, physical disabilities, HIV/AIDS and other chronic diseases, and a history of incarceration. The program has an 86 percent recovery rate of getting people off the streets.
"That is a phenomenal recovery rate; these were homeless people who had been given up on by society," says Earley. "You would think many of them would never make it, but do. Then there are others who you would think would make it [into recovery] that never do."
He is also encouraged by the success of the Linden Lodge Foundation in Pinehurst.
"Just three years ago the residents were either in nursing homes or assisted living, with little hope," he says. "Now, through the efforts of Linden Lodge Foundation, all six are in recovery. They are achieving their full potential - holding jobs and doing volunteer work in the community. None of them has been hospitalized since living at Linden Lodge. It is a model for what we should be doing for those with serious mental illness and certainly is worthy of the community's continued support."
Educate and Advocate
Earley believes in advocating for reform. He urges joining the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Moore County (www.nami-moorecounty.org) or Linden Lodge Foundation (www.lindenlodgenc.org) to learn more about the traits of the different diseases and how to work toward reform.
"Educate yourself and fight the stigma by speaking out about these serious illnesses,"he says. "It's the best tool we have."
He maintains that the mental health cause does have one particular advantage over other more fashionable causes because the taxpayer is going to pay for it whether they like it or not.
"You are going to pay for it in your community taxes because you will have more people in jail and on the streets," Earley says. "These things are costs that are not going away."
Earley points out that saving money and cutting money are two different things.
"Politicians are eager to cut money and sometimes do not have the foresight, especially when money is needed up front," he says.
However, he warns throwing money at the problem is not a solution.
"You must have strong leadership and cohesive policy as well as the money, laws and public support to make a program work," says Earley.
In addition to the LAMP community program, he cites other effective programs in San Antonio and Orlando that use integrated approaches to assess and reduce risk and provide immediate treatment for individuals.
Central to both programs is the Crisis Intervention Training provided to law enforcement officers. The CIT trained officers are the first responders in situations where aggression and violence due to mental health and substance abuse issues requires specialized techniques to de-escalate situations.
When the police transport the individual, it is to a local mental health receiving facility and a uniquely trained treatment team is prepared in advance to address the situation. This approach provides treatment rather than arrest and detention of the individual.
Earley says the San Antonio program has shown a quantified savings of $2-$3 million a year and more importantly, helps keep the individual out of the criminal justice system.
He remains hopeful the lessons of these successful programs will benefit more individuals.
"Finding your way out of the maze is difficult," he says. "It is easy to get discouraged. But people do get out. My son got out. I thought at one point that he'd be dead, homeless or in jail, but you have to have some strong advocates, and hope there are programs that can help you."
Earley concludes that many of the barriers to helping the mentally ill are caused by lack of education and the stigma associated with the diseases.
"One of the stupid assumptions people hold is that people who are crazy want to be that way," he says. "Most people that I've met that have mental illness want what we want, which is a safe place to live, some purpose in their life, and someone to love and be loved."
Tickets for the event are $15 and include dessert and coffee. Tickets may be purchased online by visiting the website www.lindenlodgenc.org, or by mailing a check payable to: Linden Lodge Foundation, P.O. Box 4153, Pinehurst, NC 28374.
Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst freelancer writer and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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